“You go back Jack do it again
“You go back Jack do it again
Wheel turnin' 'round and 'round
You go back Jack do it again”
-- Walter Becker, Donald Fagen (Steely Dan)
If you look up the word “whirlwind” in the dictionary, you will find that it can mean “a confused rush,” or “something that involves many quickly changing events.” The last three seasons for Washington Capitals defenseman Steve Oleksy might qualify. In the 2010-2011 season Oleksy split time between the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and the Lake Erie Monsters of the NHL, teams in cities separated by more than 2,100 miles. In the 2011-2012 season he split time between Idaho and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, teams in towns separated by almost 2,600 miles.
In July 2012, Oleksy signed a free agent contract with the Hershey Bears. With the National Hockey League in lockout lockdown, the Bears could get full and utter attention by the Capitals’ brain trust in player evaluation. Oleksy made an impression. In 55 games he recorded two goals and a dozen assists. But it was another number that might have left a lasting impression: 151. That was the number of penalty minutes Oleksy compiled in his 55 games. He had 11 fights with the Bears, four of them against their arch-rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. That brand of feistiness, along with his production from the blue line, earned him a three-year, two-way contract with the Caps in March.
Oleksy hardly found himself out of place with the big club. In 28 games with the Caps he finished tied for third in total points (9), behind only Mike Green and John Carlson. He was a plus-9, good for third among defensemen. He was also third in total hits and was second on the club in fights. His pugnacious character coupled with his surprising productivity made him a fan favorite in Washington. Now…if he could just get a real player page at tsn.ca.
What sort of combination of productivity and feistiness did Oleksy bring last season? If you look at all of the defensemen in the NHL, here is the complete list of defensemen who had at least nine points, finished plus-9 or better, and had three or more fights: Steve Oleksy. That’s it. In just 28 games. And while the club as a whole finished the 2012-2013 season with a rush, the Caps were 19-8-1 in his 28 games with him in the lineup.
His underlying numbers were pretty good, too. His Corsi/on-ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was second best among Caps defensemen playing in at least 20 games, and his relative Corsi (on-ice less off-ice) was best on the club among defensemen. His PDO (sum of on ice team shooting percentage and save percentage) was third, just a few ticks behind John Erskine and Jack Hillen. And for all the penalties he took (second among Caps defensemen in penalty minutes), he was the club’s best among defensemen at drawing penalties per 60 minutes (source: behindthenet.ca).
Small sample size! Small sample size!! I heard that somewhere. I don’t know what it means. I just know that if I give our nephew Deerless a rifle and he shuts his eyes and plugs a 12-point buck, I ain’t gonna enter him in sharpshooting competitions right away. I’m going to want to see him do it again. Here’s what I’d be keeping in mind. He had no points in his last six regular season games and only one assist in the seven-game playoff series against the New York Rangers. He was 0-1-1, even in those last 13 games of the season.
The Big Question… What does Act II hold in store in “The Steve Oleksy Story?”
Steve Oleksy goes into the 2013-2014 season in somewhat rare company. Since the 2004-2005 lockout, seven defensemen played in their second season in the NHL at the age of 28 or older (Oleksy will turn 28 next February):
- Jan Hejda
- Kent Huskins
- Mark Streit
- Jeff Finger
- Marek Zidlicky
- Deryk Engelland
- Petteri Nummelin
It is not a group with a lot of common elements. Hejda, like Oleksy, finished with a 1-8-9 scoring line in his first season in 39 games (Oleksy played in 28 games). His 0.23 points per game in his first season dropped in his second season (0.16), but his career level (0.22 points per game over seven seasons) is consistent with that first season. Huskins had a rather meager first season on a points per game basis (0.09 in 33 games), but raised that to 0.21 points per game over his seven seasons. Finger is in the same ball park (0.29 points per game), as is Engelland (0.19 points per game).
Streit is the class of this group in terms of his offense. But what might be noteworthy in his instance is how his offense has dropped off over his last four seasons (from 0.77 points-per-game to 0.56 last season). For our purposes here, his second season represented a more than doubling of his offensive productivity (from 0.23 points per game to 0.47). Zidlicky and Nummelin are between the poles of this discussion (0.53 and 0.32 points per game over their respective careers).
What it suggests is that Oleksy might be more Hejda than Streit, more Huskins than Zidlicky. The thing to note about those seven defensemen is that all of them played in at least 63 games in their second season with the exception of Nummelin, and his problem was missing 18 games to injuries in the 2006-2007 season. If Oleksy follows in this mold, his second act might not be spectacular, but he would be a contributing player for the Caps.
In the end…
Last season, Steve Oleksy was the very definition of the “pleasant surprise.” He came out of nowhere to get a sweater every night and provided some timely production with a splash of in-your-face. He comes into this season penciled in as a third-pair defenseman on the right side. There is bound to be some lingering apprehension among Caps fans along the lines of “was last year for real?”
The thing is, though, Oleksy is not just a banger, and he is not just an offensive defenseman. At least he was neither of the "just" last season. He was something of both, giving the Caps a dimension they lacked. Mike Green and John Carlson might, in a certain light, be looked at as “two-way” defensemen (certainly Carlson more than Green), but neither have a pronounced physical dimension to their games. John Erskine is physical, but has little in terms of offensive development. Karl Alzner is more of a defensive defenseman who relies on the geometries of the game more than a physical edge. Jack Hillen is more of an offensive type. Even going down the developmental chain, it is hard to find a defenseman who brings the combination of abilities Oleksy demonstrated last season.
The operative phrase in the last sentence of the previous paragraph is “last season.” The object of the exercise this season is to strike a balance between building on that without stepping outside the comfort level of his performance capabilities – of trying to do too much while trying to prove his value to the club. He’s done that. He just needs to take last year’s productivity and do it again.
Projection: 65 games, 4-11-15, plus-8
Photo: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images North America